53 battles between two of the greatest all-time in tennis history.
A week before the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams will fight to win the 53rd Super Bowl, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal also met for the 53rd time. For them, an Australian Open title was on the line. Djokovic was bidding to become the only man to ever win seven Australian Opens. Nadal, meanwhile, was looking to become only the second man in history (after Rod Laver) to win every Major twice.
The 53 meetings between Nadal and Djokovic is also a record in modern men’s tennis. Second and third on the list, respectively, are the rivalries between Djokovic and Roger Federer, and between Federer and Nadal. Since the Open Era began in 1968, only all-time great women Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova have faced each other more. That pair met an unreal 80 times.
Nadal, who reached his peak before the Serbian, owned the early years of this rivalry. Since Djokovic’s breakout year of 2011, though, he was an incredible 20-9 against the Spaniard. The pair, shockingly, have been 7-7 on clay courts since that year. With Djokovic winning the pair’s semifinal meeting at Wimbledon last year, that means that the Serbian came into this match at 12-2 against Nadal on hard courts since the start of 2011. Few all-time great rivalries are so one-sided. The matches are still great tennis and entertainment due to their styles of play, but the current World No. 1 has been a clear step better, at the very end of the day, on hard courts this decade.
Unlike the pair’s 2012 final in Melbourne, which lasted a whopping five hours and 53 minutes, Djokovic came out in imperious form. Entering this match, stats experts noticed that Djokovic had improved his already-great return, while Nadal was better than in years past on serve. It was the Djokovic serve, though, that really told the difference in this match.
The World No. 1 was absolutely untouchable on serve. No matter what Nadal tried, he just couldn’t do anything at all. Djokovic lost only one single point on his serve in the opening set. Add a break to love in to the fact that the Serbian easily held serve five times, and Djokovic won the first set without much trouble, 6-3.
Nadal came out in the second set looking to fight, but still found very little success on return. When Djokovic picked up a break for 3-2, that set looked to quickly end as well. Nadal is a fighter, though, and finally had a chance in a service game. The Spaniard couldn’t open a break point chance, but did force two deuces. That was the longest game of the match, but the World No. 1 held, and then followed it up with a second break. Because of that 3-2 game, Djokovic lost a total of five points on his serve in the second set. It quickly ended in his favor, 6-2.
The final set continued in similar fashion to the first two. Djokovic’s serve could not be stopped, and the Serbian broke Nadal in the third game of the set. With the way the match had gone to this point, we were pretty clearly just four Djokovic holds away from crowning an Australian Open champion. Achieving history often requires a bit of extra effort, though, and a bit of a loose game at 3-2 gave Nadal a break point chance. Nadal sent a backhand into the net, though, and two strong points from Djokovic later saw the hold for 4-2. Djokovic’s next service game also saw a deuce, but the Serbian responded with two big serves (plus one lucky volley) and held for 5-3.
Djokovic played one final strong game, and in just over two hours the match was over. The Serbian took his seventh Australian Open title and 15th Grand Slam, 6-3 6-2 6-3.
What it means
Djokovic breaks his tie with Roger Federer and Roy Emerson for all-time Australian Open titles. The three men were tied at six championships a piece, but no longer. The Serbian now matches Serena Williams’ seven for the most of any player in the Open Era. (Australian Margaret Court won 11 from 1960-1973, but only four of those titles came in the Open Era.)
The Serbian also breaks his tie with Pete Sampras. Sampras, the serve-and-volleying American, set the all-time men’s standard with 14 Grand Slam titles, winning his final trophy (in his last career match) at the 2002 US Open. Since then, though, the current generation of all-time greats have surpassed him. First it was Roger Federer, who passed Sampras at Wimbledon 2009, and has since gone on to hold the current record of 20 Slams. Nadal passed Sampras next, and currently sits at 17 Major titles. Now, with his 15th Grand Slam title, Djokovic moves into sole possession of third all-time. And, with the way the past few years have gone, both Nadal and Federer have to be aware of the Serbian’s ability to catch them.
Nadal, meanwhile, still sits at 17, three behind Federer. He also is definitely within range of catching the Swiss. Nadal has not quite appeared to be Djokovic’s equal off of clay in recent years, but that can always change. The Spaniard is still good enough that even the slightest dip from the World No. 1 could put him in possession to win any Major again.
Nadal almost always comes back stronger from his losses. You can bet that the next time this pair meets the Spaniard will have this result on his mind and play better–especially if that match is on the clay of Roland Garros.
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